January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. Recently, a PBS broadcast reported that sex trafficking in Hawai’i is far worse (up to 10x as prevalent) than in other mainland cities. Honolulu is a major center point of international sex trafficking, and this issue impacts neighbor islands extensively as well.
In one report it was found that 1 in 11 men in Hawai’i had searched for sex online. Those searching for sex are tourists and locals alike. In a sex trafficking study presented at Ho’ola Na Pua conference 1/6/2019, Dr. Domonique Roe-Sepowitz provided more recent human trafficking data. The research found that while the U.S. national average age for underage sex trafficking is 12, Hawaii’s average age is a record low, at 8 years-old. While this number is horrific, the age range of her sample was broad. Row-Sepowitz interviewed individuals who had been trafficked as young as 4 years old, and as old as 57.
While trafficking is more common for women, men represented 20% of those trafficked, and LGBTQ populations were trafficked disproportionately. Children have been trafficked under the radar while still living at home and while still attending school. Other victims have been entirely kidnapped: Homeland Security Investigation Special Agent Paul Malana described victims in Honolulu city towers who are held in cages.
Here on the Big Island, reports have found that the most common methods of child trafficking are through “boyfriending” (where a trafficker pretends to be in a romantic relationship with the victim, gaining personal information and trust from her before “turning her out” in a cycle of violence, isolation and coercion). Often children without other healthy emotional bonds -especially with caring adults- are more susceptible to this strategy because the trafficker initially makes the child feel loved where they may be isolated otherwise. Sadly, other children are given away and trafficked frequently by their own family members. “Romeo Pimps” (“boyfriends”) and family members were the most often cited traffickers of Hawai’i’s children.
One of the most important factors found in studies on trafficking in Hawai’i when it comes to healing for survivors has been mentorship. Those working to recover survivors from this life have found mentorship to be pivotal in healing and preventing re-entry into the trafficking system.
“I wish I had an adult to mentor me…” stated Tammy Bitanga, who was trafficked in Honolulu and now works at Ho’ola Na Pua to help rescue other survivors. “My recovery looked like people caring about me.”
Many providers and law enforcement alike echoed a refrain that it takes a team of people -higher resources than is needed for a typical domestic violence case- to help survivors recover from experiencing human trafficking.
“Law enforcement can’t do it alone.” Said Lucy Cabral-De Armas, acting Special Agent in Charge at HSI Honolulu “a lot of our victims don’t trust many people… we need our service providers… we need everyone.”
This was echoed by Jessica Munoz, health-care provider and Ho’ola Na Pua president, and Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Paul Malana.
“The thing is, the victims, they don’t want to talk to us law enforcement” said Malana, addressing providers at Ho’ola Na Pua outreach event, “but they will talk to you as providers…”
Until recently, it was legal for undercover law enforcement to have sex with trafficking victims as part of sting operations, and in years prior the state of Hawai’i had arrested minor children for “prostitution”. Today, we know that a child cannot be a prostitute, because a child cannot give consent. The law allowing officers to have sex with victims has since been changed since it was found that some law enforcement frequently used victims for sex in exchange for the promise of non-arrest. Hawai’i was last in the United States to enact laws that protect and address victims of trafficking.
Like domestic violence, a trafficking situation is dangerous to leave and most victims are at highest risk when leaving their abuser(s). Trafficked victims, if not rescued, on average die of abuse within a decade of being trafficked. Many are raped, beaten, tortured, and drugged into a state of disempowerment. Many are emotionally attached to their traffickers, having been groomed to believe that they are cared for (or that they have no one else) even when their lives are endangered.
We, as caring citizens can help end human trafficking in Hawai’i. These persons may be your neighbors, your students, your patients, your clients, or your very own own family members. Trafficking knows no demographic or economic barriers, although we do see an increase in vulnerability for homeless children, those who have suffered high levels of abuse or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and disproportionate risks for Native Hawaiians.
It is important to be watchful and aware of signs of trafficking. Is a child distant, struggling in school or at home, with few adults to confide in? Has a child run away from home? (1 in 3 runaways are approached by a trafficker within 48 hours). Is a child dealing with a high number of Adverse Childhood Experiences? (The average ACE score for a trafficking victim is 4. -Compared with 2 for those who have not been trafficked). Do you have a student who comes in late to class, dressed scantily and appearing tired as if they did not sleep the night before? Are you a medical professional whose patient has a high number of Urinary Tract Infections, does not seem to be in control of his or her own decision making (another apparently makes decisions for them); have they had their passport or other identification taken away, or are they marked with “branding” tattoos like dollar signs?
You can also teach children and adults to be weary of signs of cohesive trafficker behavior: Is a boyfriend excessively “love-bombing” or asking a teen to “run away” with them? Is a child bragging about being gifted with expensive items or vacations? Could excessive drug-use and abuse in a home be a risk factor for inter-family trafficking? Maintain an open dialog with children in your care about their self-worth, work ethic, and the red flags of entrapment.
Trafficking victims have been saved by truck drivers, nurses and doctors, teachers, hotel staff, and other concerned witnesses, but too often, many trafficked persons slip through our islands unnoticed, or stigmatized instead of helped.
In her talk Dr. Domonique Roe-Sepowitz described one trafficking survivor (first captured at age 14) who resided in group homes, residential programs and foster care while being trafficked. The survivor stated “They [the workers] asked me many questions, but none of them the right question.” when she described how she was never identified by personnel as a trafficking victim.
“Once you know about this, you can’t forget it” said Roe-Sepowitz. She will be publishing the results of her trafficking study later this month.
Neighborhood Place of Puna is working to increase our outreach to support an end to sex trafficking in East Hawai’i. Our regular Family Strengthening and Family Assessment Center programs may help to lower community risks for sex trafficing, and we are currently creating community partnerships to educate the public more. To schedule a training at your workplace or school for identifying and stopping sex trafficking, please contact email@example.com.
If you suspect you have seen a trafficking victim and know their location you may contact the HSI Tipline at 1-866-347-2423 or contact local HSI Special Agents:
Ryan Faulkner 1-808-864-2590 firstname.lastname@example.org (Big Island)
Paul Malana 1-808-371-9350 email@example.com (Honolulu)
If you believe you or a loved one are being trafficked, please contact the
National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.